Dearest Check-out Lady at the Grocery Store,

Dearest Check-Out Lady at the Grocery Store,

Today, like every Tuesday, I went through your aisle at the grocery store.  There you stood with your wrinkled uniform shirt and your pasted on smile, just like always.  You looked tired, yet you still managed to smile.  “One hour til quittin-time” was all you had to say today. And that’s okay, because you and I are friends.

Each week, I head for whatever aisle you happen to be working that day.  Sometimes you are way down on the end and your line is shorter and it makes me feel as though I’ve hit the jack pot.

We don’t speak much, you and me.  Every once in a while, in between scanning my canned tomatoes and tuna, you will look up and our eyes meet and we smile at one another. In some strange way, I feel like I know you…maybe it’s just a spiritual connection somehow?  Honestly?  I couldn’t say.

But once, about a year ago, you randomly blurted out that your husband had left you the night before.  Your eyes were still swollen and red.  You spoke just above a whisper and your hands, though shaking, never wavered from the synchronicity of scanning my groceries. It was as though you were on auto-pilot.  I distinctly remember how stoic your expression was as you told me that you didn’t know what you were going to feed your invalid mother and son for dinner that night. I felt so strongly in that moment, the weight you carried upon your shoulders …it was as though I was carrying it too. But it was your eyes that I will never forget. The blank stare, the sheer surrendering, lack of life made me wonder, at what point did your sparkle simply leave you and cease to exist? Was it yesterday or did it disappear long before?

As I walked to my car, I thought about my own family.  How happy and healthy everyone was…how incredibly blessed I was.  Life could be so cyclical I reminded myself.  One day you’re on top of the world while the next could be complete devastation.  We all know that life can change on a dime.  Some know this more than others.  I shook my head trying to rid myself of my own painful memories, the ones I purposely chose not to remember anymore.  Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about your eyes.

With my groceries still in my trunk, ice cream melting, I drove straight to the fancy Italian Restaurant around the corner.  I ordered chicken parmigiana, spaghetti & meatballs, soup, salad, bread and bread pudding for dessert.  To go. Before leaving, I asked the teenage girl who rang me up to throw in some paper plates and utensils.  No cooking and no clean-up. Not tonight.

I then drove straight back to the grocery store where you were still serving the last fifteen minutes of your shift.  I walked up to you and tapped you on the shoulder.  When you turned around I held up the bag of dinner from the Italian restaurant and said, “We girls have to stick together, don’t we?  Thought you might need a night off from the kitchen.”  I smiled and put the bag down at her feet.  I gave her a quick wink and headed for the door.  To my surprise, she ran after me and hugged me tightly.

I whispered to her, “You’re going to be alright, you know that don’t you?  God’s got this.”  I smiled and rubbed her shoulders.  She never said a word. She had gotten choked up and couldn’t.  But she did smile.  And for a split second, I saw a glimmer of sparkle in her eyes.  That was more than enough for me.

We see each other each week now and our conversations remain limited. We have never spoken about her Italian dinner again. In some ways, I understand that I embarrassed her to some degree.  I had seen the inside and although I knew she appreciated it, she still had her pride after all and that was a good thing.

Now when I see her I’ll casually ask, “How’s mom?”  or “How little man doing?”  “Need anything?” She just shakes her head and says “No, you’ve done more than enough” and smiles.  We still don’t know each other’s names and that’s okay.  But I do care about her… My special friend, the check-out lady.

It’s important to notice people, to look deeper, to feel someone’s pain. Even if they’re a complete stranger. You never know what someone is experiencing unless you open yourself to the need in someone’s eyes.  Maybe they just need a simple, “Hello, how are you?” or “That color looks beautiful on you!”  Maybe they need a reassuring rub on their shoulder, some form of human interaction. But we are all put here to make a difference in the lives around us.  So why not put your phones down and look out into the world around you and see where you can make a difference in someone’s life?  Sometimes the smallest gestures make the biggest differences.

Once, a long,  long time ago, a complete stranger picked me up off of the hallway floor of a cancer hospital after I had slid down the wall sobbing.  I was alone and scared and I felt like my heart was being shattered into a million little pieces.  My sister and best friend in the world lay dying in the next room. Bone cancer.  This stranger hugged my shoulders very tightly and quietly walked me to the chapel.  He helped me to the alter and left me to pray.  I never saw his face.  He never said a word.  Was he an angel?  I will never truly know.  But I will never forget his kindness as long as I live. And for the rest of my life, I will try to be like this angel who helped me that day.  It was a small gesture to him I’m sure, but it made the world of difference to me in that moment of life changing despair.

So try to remember, it isn’t necessarily the well-orchestrated wording or how much publicly documented time you dedicate to being kind to one another that can be the most meaningful… sometimes, it’s just a smile, a kind word, a pat on the shoulder that can make the biggest impact.

Sometimes, we just want to know that someone out there gives a damn.

Frankly, I don’t know who needs the smile more each week… me or my check-out lady at the grocery store.  But hey, that’s what friends are for, right?

Love & Blessings,

Michele Mathews